by Steve Hall
Board Member, Official Kentucky State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest
In baseball, when a player is called up to pinch hit, he’s generally a big hitter and everybody expects him to deliver better than the feller he’s hittin’ for. When I thought about that for a moment, my excitement about stepping in for Terry quickly faded, because this feels more like bringing in the pitcher in place of your power hitter. I’ll take a swing at it, but chances of a hit were far better with the other feller. I look forward to Terry’s posts, and he does a great job every time out. I reckon if you’re reading this, he either didn’t have time to write anything himself, or he decided this was good enough to sit amongst his work. I’m gonna assume the latter and feel good about that.
By way of introduction, my father, Jodie Hall, was the founder of the Official Kentucky State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest, held at Rough River for 4 decades. Terry asked if I could share with his readers a bit about how the contest came into being. Well, when Terry Strange asks for a favor, you’ve gotta step up to the plate. So here goes. The first contest was actually held at the Grayson County fairgrounds in Leitchfield on July 4, 1974. But its roots go back way yonder past that, plumb back to the 1930’s and 40’s.
Dad was born in 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression. His family lived in western Hardin County, at the Breckinridge County line, near the head of Rough Creek. Times were hard, more than most of us can comprehend today, and music was hard to come by. Today, we have instant music, anytime, anywhere. Back then, you had to seek it out or play it yourself. This often involved walking several miles on a weekend to a house where they were having a dance. I don’t know how everybody found out about a dance back then, but they did. And boy did they ever turn out for it! In rain, snow, and bitter cold, pert near everybody in the community would show up at the house, and they’d move all the furniture out of the sitting room and dance til mornin’.
Dad’s Uncle Joe played the fiddle, and Dad grew up listening to him play and call square dances. Dad learned to play the guitar, mandolin, and several other instruments, his brother Staley played the bass, and when their little brother Reedy was finally big enough to play, Dad taught him how to chord the old piano in the front room of their home. Reedy and his band, The Kentucky Ramblers, would go on to start the Lincoln Jamboree in Hodgenville, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Friends and neighbors would visit and often stay a few days, and most every night concluded with a jam session. Dad could play most anything, but his true love was the fiddle. He never was a great fiddler himself, but he surrounded himself with great fiddlers and loved playing with them more than anything in the world. His best friend Leonard “Ragweed” Best in E’town, Lonnie Peerce in Louisville, Bud Meredith, Herman Alvey, and his buddy Randall Meredith in Leitchfield, all were great friends he picked with every chance he got.
So when Dad attended the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in the early 70’s, he found his calling. He decided if they could do it in Athens, Alabama, then they could do it in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and he set out to figure out how a feller would do such a thing. Dad knew he was gonna need a lot of help, both promoting and emceeing the event, so that was his first task.
Leo Mudd was a brassy young KSP trooper making a name for himself in those days, and he was perfect for the job. Only problem was, Leo was promoting and DJ’ing Leitchfield’s big-time disco dances – hey, if you were there, you know they were actually pretty darned great for little ol’ Leitchfield - so a fiddlin’ contest wasn’t exactly gonna turn his head.
What Leo did care about was people, especially youth and folks with special needs. He was heavily involved in the March of Dimes and T.A.P., the Teen Action Program, which was a group of teens who volunteered to serve others in their community. Dad got with Leo and told him his idea, and they decided the fiddlin’ contest would serve to raise money for the March of Dimes, and the M.O.D. and T.A.P. volunteers could be the event staff. That turned out to be a beautiful marriage, and the partnership lasted for many years, with many of the same folks working the contest for years to come.
After Leo came on board, and a host of volunteers with him, they were ready to go. They held the first contest at the fairgrounds just down from our house in Leitchfield, and from all accounts, it was a pretty good start. The following year, they decided to move to Rough River and take advantage of the natural amphitheater by the tailwaters below the dam. The 4th was a pretty big weekend for the park already, so they suggested the 3rd weekend in July when they didn’t have anything else going on.
Dad and Leo went to Frankfort and had the contest named the Official Kentucky State Championship, and in July of 1975, they held the 1st official state championship. It was modeled after the contest in Athens, Alabama, that had provided the inspiration.
Tough times followed and the contest wasn’t always a success. I clearly recall a year where Dad announced it was probably their last, and a feller got up out of the audience and turned his hat over on the stage and put some money in it. Most everybody in the audience followed suit, and bailed them out of a bad year. Through times like that, just like our friend Terry Strange, Dad’s love for music and his desire to share it with others drove him to stay the course. Lifelong friends like Leo Mudd, Brent Miller, who took the reins as coordinator when Dad needed to step down, and all the music friends he made through the years are a testimony to the rewards a life full of music can bring.
If your life isn’t filled with music - real music, played on a real instrument - then maybe it’s time to give my buddy Terry a holler. You never know where it might lead. Uncle Joe made a choice to play the fiddle, and the impacts of that choice are so far reaching they are simply immeasurable.
Thank you Steve for sharing with us the history of the Official Kentucky State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest. Please visit the official website of the championship for news and information http://kyfiddler.weebly.com/.